Dr. Galen Suppes, award-winning researcher from the University of Missouri (UM), is gearing up a countersuit against the university over rights to his inventions. In 2006, Suppes received the EPA's highest honor, the Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Award, but after several years of discord with UM, was accused by the university of a variety of misdeeds related to his intellectual property rights.
UM has asserted rights in several of Suppes innovations, but the popular professor is resolute and says, "It's rare that somebody like me comes along who knows his rights and is going to stand up for them."
Suppes developed a means to recycle glycerin waste from the manufacture of biodiesel fuel into an environmentally friendly anti-freeze and applied for a patent for the technology in 2001. Similar to Pitt's fight with PET/CT inventor David Townsend is the claim that UM is making for both the ownership of the research conceived and patent process that began prior to Dr. Suppes' professorship.
UM wants the rights to this invention and several others in the professor's portfolio of innovations. Dr. Suppes filed an appeal to UM's Patent Committee who ruled in favor of university ownership for two of the patents in question. They referred the matter of the glycerin invention, discovered prior to Dr. Suppes' employment, to outside counsel for consideration.
What is disturbing about the committee's decision is that the body is composed of administrative personnel, all appointed by UM's President. There is no faculty representation on the panel, which is out of the ordinary and indicates a predilection for bias.
Therefore, why would UM try to lay claim to an innovation developed prior to a faculty's employment? Perhaps Dr. Suppes' notification to the tech transfer office that royalties had been paid was motivation enough.
Still working within the university process, Dr. Suppes filed a grievance against key players in UM's technology transfer system related to the ownership claims and what he saw as mishandling of intellectual property. However, the day before his grievance hearing, UM filed a lawsuit against the professor and terminated the grievance proceedings.
Why would the university short-circuit its own process and opt instead for litigation? Unlike the Patent Committee, the grievance panel includes faculty representatives. Was it a preemptive move to avoid a foregone conclusion and seek a better result in the courts?
The university's complaint accuses Suppes of altering its Invention Disclosure forms. In contrast with best practices, UM's invention disclosure form mandates assignment of the innovation to the university despite the circumstances of discovery. Federal law does prescribe university ownership for publicly funded research, but UM overreaches in their forms and policies, requiring faculty to assign ownership for every invention even ones the university has no right to own. Inventors must then request their rights be returned to them and are at the mercy of UM.
Further, Dr. Suppes has said that UM's "decision makers don't do enough to commercialize promising technologies, but also refuse to allow researchers to pursue their technologies on their own". Even in those instances when the university does not plan to license the work, they do not return it to the faculty inventor. "They are afraid of making a bad decision and giving away technology that could end up being worth something. So, instead, they do nothing and let it sit on the shelf," he said.
"Faculty members would be much better served if they banded together in seeking to protect their rights," said Dr. Suppes, but he believes that many researchers simply surrender to their universities. However, he adds, "Getting faculty members to stand up together to defend their rights is like trying to herd cats."
He denies UM's charges that he circumvented its technology transfer protocols when he patented and licensed certain of his inventions. Dr. Suppes contends that he kept UM's Office of Technology Management apprised at every stage from patent application and issuance to licensing, but that they did nothing until he informed them royalties had been paid.
"What they do is they sit on it... or they wait until they find out there's money to be made. That's when they finally act," Suppes said and is preparing his countersuit to defend his ownership rights and actions.